There’s nothing quite like a state of “flow” when you’re working. The rare moments when your inspiration aligns with your motivation likely lead to some of your most creative work. Plus, it feels great to actually check a task or project off the list so you can move on to the next thing. Meanwhile, a mental block — its opposite — can cause work to feel laborious and uninspired. Forget creativity when you have a mental block — it makes it difficult even to start working on what you need to do.
A mental block can manifest in several ways. Perhaps your imposter syndrome is squelching your creative ideas, for instance, or you’re overwhelmed by the breadth of a project and its impending deadline. Maybe you’re just tired or stressed.
Either way, having a mental block feels like being trapped in your own head, and it can seriously dampen your ability to think outside the box. The problem is, you’re so locked into your own perspective that you don’t see more innovative approaches to your problems.
Luckily, jumping over these mental hurdles is simpler than you think. You just need the right strategies to get your flow back.
Table of Contents
- What Does a Mental Block Feel Like?
- What Causes a Mental Block?
- How Do You Get Rid of a Mental Block?
- Final Thoughts
What Does a Mental Block Feel Like?
A mental block feels like getting stuck in the wrong gear. You lack forward momentum. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t muster up any mental clarity.
It’s a lot like brain fog or burnout. You might feel fuzzy, slow or mentally exhausted.
Does that sound like you? Look out for these signs of a mental block:
- You can’t make decisions easily (also known as decision fatigue)
- You’re struggling to be creative or come up with out-of-the-box solutions
- You make simple errors all the time, even in tasks or skills you’ve mastered
- Your brain feels sluggish and isn’t firing the way it used to
Check these boxes and you might be stuck in a mental block. But never fear: you can get out of it!
An Example of a Mental Block
Mental blocks are most widespread in creative fields — that’s why ‘writer’s block’ is so common. But they’re becoming more prevalent in any career, especially if you’re in a high-stress and demanding environment.
Take sport. In a perfect example of a mental block, Simone Biles dropped out of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with a case of ‘the twisties’.
The twisties is a dangerous mental block for gymnasts. Basically, the brain gets out of sync with what the body is doing. When a gymnast’s mind loses touch with its surroundings like that, it can be impossible to execute even the most routine of skills — and it’s terrifying.
Simply put, their mind gets stuck. In a given moment, they can’t access the muscle memory of a skill they might have performed 10,000 times before.
That’s an extreme example. But you’ve likely experienced some version of it. Maybe you’ve found yourself making rookie errors at work, for instance. Or battled to make it through your to-do list, ending up doom-scrolling on social media.
What Causes a Mental Block?
Nobody is immune! There are a host of risk factors that could make you more prone to a mental block. Here are just a handful:
Big projects are paralyzing. If you have a titan-scale task ahead of you, you can be so overwhelmed that you don’t even know how to begin. That in turn leads to procrastination — which ends up making things worse!
Ever felt like a fraud? Imposter syndrome is the belief that you’re incompetent or unworthy in spite of any success you’ve had. Self-doubt like this can be so encompassing that you can’t focus on the task in front of you.
“Perfection is the enemy of good.” Hold yourself to unrealistic expectations and you’ll never be happy with yourself. Perfectionism is demotivating and can get you stuck in a mental block.
Poor Physical Health
One in 3 Americans are sleep-deprived right now. Add poor nutrition into the mix and you get mental exhaustion — guaranteed. Deficiencies, in both sleep and diet, run down your brain and cause mental decay.
Sufferers of depression often battle with brain fog. Depression is so debilitating that you lack the motivation to be productive or creative. That can grind your brain to a halt.
How Do You Get Rid of a Mental Block?
So just how do you get unstuck? Getting out of a mental block looks a little different for everyone. Most of all, you need to find a way to inject energy back into your life.
Bear in mind that this is dependent on your context. If you’re not addressing the root cause of your mental block, it won’t go away in the long-term.
But there are a handful of tried-and-tested methods. Here are 8 practical things you can try to break free of your mental block:
1. Break Your Project Down
A few years ago, I was working on changing a company product that I believed would hugely benefit our customers. Sounds great, right?
As inspired as I was to make people’s lives easier, though, the sheer magnitude of the task at hand felt overwhelming. Every morning, I cracked open my laptop to work and felt totally paralyzed. I loved the idea, yes, but actualizing it felt risky. What if it didn’t turn out the way I pictured in my mind? More importantly, where would I even begin?
A former colleague gave me great advice over coffee:
Change how you think. Start by breaking the big project down into small tasks.
When a major project overwhelms you, you only see the entire forest instead of the individual trees. And as you stare it down, you start to feel discouraged by your own lack of progress, thus slowing you down further.
Breaking down a massive task into smaller chunks makes the work feel more manageable. You’ll have multiple clear places to start and end with, which will lend a motivating sense of productivity and mastery to your process. Learn more about it here: The Motivation Flowchart: The Mental Process of Successful People
Think of it as accumulating small wins. When you realize you’re more capable than you have once thought, you’ll develop the momentum and confidence needed to get your big job done little by little.
2. Change Up Your Scenery
Of course, there’s a time and place for sitting down to get things done. But if you’re experiencing a mental block, switching up your surroundings can make a big difference in your output.
Have you ever noticed how your environment directly impacts your performance and mood?
Your brain associates your physical surroundings with certain feelings and activities. So, if you feel mentally stuck, your mind may need some new sensory stimuli.
During this time in your life, it may not be possible to set up shop at a cafe or move from your cubicle to a conference room, so you may need to think outside the box. If you’re working remotely in a home office, try going to your dining table or couch. If the weather cooperates, sit outside for a bit with your computer or take a walk around the block.
You can also simply rearrange your workspace. Not sure where to begin? Try decluttering. Some studies show that an organized desk enhances productivity.
The point is to stimulate your brain with new sounds and sights. You may find a much-needed dose of inspiration when you work while breathing in the fresh air, listening to city sounds, or staying in the comfort of your own living space.
3. Do an Unrelated Activity
When it comes to productivity, a bit of distraction isn’t always a bad thing. That’s especially true if your chosen distraction helps you get things done in the long run.
Have you realized how your most creative thoughts tend to bubble up when you’re, say, lying in bed or taking a shower? In their research of the “incubation period,” scientists have discovered that people’s best ideas seem to surface when they aren’t actively trying to solve a problem.
In a 2010 study, participants needed to look for a roommate or new employee based on the profiles that the researchers gave. The people who had a brief “incubation period” — in this case, working on an anagram — consistently made better choices than those who spent more time weighing their options.
If you can’t seem to prime your brain for a project, try doing something completely unrelated to work, such as washing your dishes, working out, or calling a friend. Some experts say finding another low-stake project to work on can help jump-start the creative part of your brain and activate your flow.
The key is to allow your unconscious mind to do its best work: eliciting the new knowledge your conscious mind may be ignoring or suppressing.
4. Be Physical
Feeling antsy? When your mind won’t seem to settle into a state of flow, it may help to swap out your mental activity for a physical one and see how it impacts your perspective.
While any physical activity is beneficial for your body — and getting up to move can serve as a helpful form of distraction — certain forms of exercise can more directly impact the mind. To be specific, relaxing, flow-based exercises like dance, yoga, or tai chi can create a gentle sense of momentum in your body, which can prime your brain for the same state.
Stress-reducing activities may also be necessary. Meditating or taking slow, deep breaths will also calm your nervous system if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Evidence shows that the logical, creative part of your brain essentially shuts off when you’re stressed.
On the flip side, when your mind and body are relaxed, you can think more clearly, be more creative, and focus for longer periods — all of which will help you overcome a mental block.
5. Write It out
You’ve heard the advice to write out what’s on your mind before, but there’s a twist. There are different ways to write, and you have to choose one that will move your mental blockage.
- Brainstorm: Grab a piece of paper or a digital notebook, and write whatever comes to mind. My favorite way to brainstorm is by mind mapping.
- Journal: This is the big brother of brainstorming. Here you are writing about your mental blockage in complete sentences, but there’s no formal structure to your writing. It’s just a stream of consciousness put into words on paper.
- Pros/cons list: This is a favorite for the indecisive.
- Essay: Imagine that your high school English teacher wants you to write a persuasive essay about your mental blockage.
6. Don’t Force It
It can be frustrating to fight against your own mind. If your mental block won’t go away after some effort, it may be time to take a break. Forcing creative thoughts only adds to your stress levels, which in turn inhibits your ability to think creatively. And if you sit and stare at a project for too long, you’ll not only waste valuable time but also begin to associate this specific work with frustration and produce work you’re not proud of.
“I know that forcing something is not going to create anything beyond mediocre, so I step aside and work on a different project until it hits me,” the artist Ben Skinner said about his creative process.
If your work isn’t time-sensitive, then it may make sense to step away for a while to focus on something else, be it an administrative task that requires less creativity or a project that you feel motivated to work on.
When the time is right, you’ll find your way back to the original task with a fresh, creative perspective.
7. Avoid Your Crutches
Coffee, alcohol, sugar, and drugs can get you through a moment, but they don’t clean up the clutter or help you overcome mental blocks for more than a few minutes.You don’t have to give up the cup of your morning ritual or the piece of cake to celebrate your loved one’s special day. It’s the moment you want to reach for that extra cup of coffee to churn out that big presentation that’s your greatest barrier.
If you’re stuck with mental blockage, mental stimulants won’t guide you through. They will add to the clutter and may only worsen the situation. Instead, stick with good nutrition and stay hydrated to keep your brain in optimal form.
8. Sleep on It
Instead of heading to the kitchen to jump start your thought process when you feel overwhelmed, try crawling under the covers instead. Sleep is one of the best ways we can sweep the cobwebs off our minds.
When your foggy brain is begging you for that caffeine fix, try laying down for 20 minutes. You may not sleep, and that’s okay—just let your mind drift. This break from problem-solving mode might just be the breakthrough you need.
Let’s say it’s 10 pm and you’re slumped over in front of your laptop, doing your best to stay focused on the design details of your client’s website. Instead of agonizing over subhead text options for another half hour, shut it down and head to bed.
You know when it’s been too long. Even if you’re up against a hard deadline, a well-rested mind will make better decisions in a lot less time.
Mental blockage can come in many forms, and it can even manifest as stress, depression, or anxiety. When you notice you can’t get your thoughts to flow in the right direction, it’s time to choose one of the strategies above and try to punch through the mental clutter. This can take hours, or even days, but once you’ve pushed through, you’ll get back to being productive and less stressed.
Featured photo credit: Jonas Leupe via unsplash.com
|99U: 7 Types of Creative Block (and What to Do About Them)
|LiveScience:What are the Twisties?
|NIH: What Are Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency? in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep
|Entrepreneur: 7 Unexpected Ways to Get Around Mental Blocks
|The American Genius: Study: organized desks dramatically improve productivity, focus
|Inc: The Surprising Secret to Breaking Through a Mental Block, According to Science
|Writer’s Digest: 7 Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block
|Inc: The Surprising Secret to Breaking Through a Mental Block, According to Science
|Nature Neuroscience: Stress weakens prefrontal networks: molecular insults to higher cognition
|Brain Pickings: Advice from Artists on How to Overcome Creative Block, Handle Criticism, and Nurture Your Sense of Self-Worth